THE BLOG
01/05/2015 09:40 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

At Last! A Smart Cuban Policy

Marcio Silva via Getty Images

The action last month by President Obama to begin normalizing relations with Cuba was welcome news and decades overdue.

By nearly every measure, our Cuba policy for the past 50-years has been a thoughtless failure.

The U.S. policy with other communist countries during that period has been called "constructive engagement". The rationale was that trade and travel with communist countries like China and Vietnam was the most effective way to steer them toward greater human rights.

But our Cuba policy was very different. The U.S. maintained a tight, tough embargo prohibiting trade and travel for more than five decades. We decided to punish the Cuban government by prohibiting American businesses from trading with them and prohibiting the American people from traveling there. Whatever else this policy did, it had the impact of adding to the misery and poverty of the poor people of Cuba, who were the real victims of the embargo.

A 50-year policy that restricted the freedom of the American people in travel and trade, hurt the poor people in Cuba, and gave the Cuban government an excuse to blame their failed economy on the embargo....it has been the trifecta of foreign-policy bad judgment!

All of us are united in wanting the Castro era to be over. And we want the Cuban people to live in freedom. But the embargo hasn't accomplished that. After 50 years, it's time to try a different strategy.

The sights and sounds of the people celebrating in the streets of Havana the night of the President's announcement spoke volumes about who our policies were hurting and how they feel about the continued embargo policy.

The intense politics surrounding our Cuba policy meant there has never really been a thoughtful debate about the impact of our policy on either the people of Cuba or U.S. citizens.

The only crack in the consistent Cuban-embargo policy came in 1999, when I and several other Senators offered an amendment in the Senate that lifted the embargo on the sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba. I think it is immoral to include food as part of an embargo. Hurting the poor, the sick and the hungry is always a failed strategy. In order to get our amendment lifting the embargo on food and medicine passed in the Senate, it had to contain a number of restrictions to make it difficult to conduct that trade (such as prohibiting financing the transaction through a U.S. bank). But, we got it passed, and it worked. We were finally able to begin selling agricultural commodities and medicine to Cuba.

Later, Senator Enzi and I introduced the Dorgan-Enzi legislation in the Senate that would have repealed the provision that prohibits U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba. We believed we had sufficient votes in the Senate to pass it. But it was blocked by those few in the Senate who continued their unwavering demand that the embargo be retained and even strengthened.

Our Cuba policy has never been about evidence-based outcomes. We have avoided a real debate about how our policies might affect the behavior of the Castro government for five decades.

In fact, the politics and passion surrounding the issue have led to some absurd actions. The best example of that was a program called TV Marti, which wasted hundreds of millions of dollars trying to send television signals to the Cuban people for nearly two decades. The problem is the Cuban government easily blocked those signals. But it didn't matter to those who supported the program. TV Marti purchased aerostat balloons to send the television signals and even bought a special airplane they would fly just outside the Cuban airspace and send signals. It didn't seem to matter to U.S. policymakers that we were sending television signals the Cuban people couldn't watch. It must have made those in the U.S. who wanted to punish the Castro government feel better. But of course, that program really only punished the American taxpayers, who were paying for another failure.

But, finally, at long last, it appears we are on a track to end this Cuban policy that hurts the impoverished in Cuba. The announcement by President Obama is just the first step. And it won't happen overnight.

Over-the-top reaction by those few who cling to a failed policy signals a last gasp attempt to derail the process of normalizing our relationship with Cuba. But those discordant voices are destined to fail. Yesterday forever is hardly an effective strategy. We all want a change in government in Cuba and we want freedom for the Cuba people. And I am convinced the new strategy of ending the embargo and normalizing the relations with Cuba is the surest and quickest way to accomplish those goals.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com (subject line: "90 Miles").